“Governments hesitate to call the horror by its name, for to do so would oblige them to act.”
The Rwandan genocide was personal for me. I h ad a Rwandan friend who was involved in peacemaking efforts and was caught up in the violence. He was missing for a month before we heard from him in a camp in another country. We had been praying daily for him and his family. Alison Des Forges made the numbing scale of those slaughtered personal. Voices like hers are needed if we are ever to fulfill that oft-empty promise: Never again!
A plane crash triggered her greatest work. Another plane crash stilled her voice that had advocated tirelessly for the victims of genocide. Alison Des Forges was one of the first and most persistent voices raised about the Rwandan genocide, a voice that leaders around the world deliberately chose to ignore until it was too late. Then she became a voice describing in great detail what had happened so the world would never forget.
Born Alison Liebhafsy, she earned both her masters and doctoral degrees in history studying Rwanda and the impact of colonization. She volunteered with Human Rights Watch, but soon she was working with the organization full-time on Rwanda. She became the senior advisor on Africa with a focus on the Great Lakes region which encompassed Burundi, Rwanda and Zaire, later renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo. She developed a deep understanding of the history and politics of the conflicts in the region, and understanding that was different and more complex than the simplistic view popular in U.S. government circles that these conflicts were all ancient tribal enmities.
When Tutsi soldiers in Burundi assassinated the Hutu president, massive killings erupted in that country. Tens of thousands of Tutsi were killed, and extremist Hutus in Rwanda were watching. As they later said during the genocide, “Look what happened with Burundi. Nobody gave a damn, so we can do the same thing here, and no one will give a damn.” A 1993 peace accord between the Hutu-dominated government and Tutsi rebels was rejected by extremists on both sides, and Des Forges feared something terrible was going to happen.
She was back in the U.S. when the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down on April 6, 1994. Her Rwandan friend and human rights monitor Monique Mujawamariya immediately called. “This is it. We’re finished, “ she said. Mujawamariya described over the telephone what she could see and hear as militiamen went door-to-door pulling people out of their homes and hacking them to death. When they came to her door she told Des Forges, “Please take care of my children. I don’t want you to hear this.” The phone went dead. A few days later Des Forges heard back from her friend who managed to flee and find shelter at the Hotel Mille Collines which became famous through the movie “Hotel Rwanda.”
As Des Forges kept gathering reports she realized that the slaughter was systematic, targeting all Tutsis as well as Hutus who supported Tutsis in some way. The killing fit the legal definition of genocide in the United Nations’ Genocide Convention which speaks of genocide as an attempt to eliminate, in whole or in part, the people of a given group. Ten days into the killings it was clear that it was more than just a spontaneous outburst of violence but that the massacres were planned, coordinated and politically motivated. Radio broadcasts from the independent Radio RTLM coordinated the killing down to local details of specific roadblocks and particular people to murder. Des Forges went to the United Nations and lobbied members of the Security Council, but nobody would talk about genocide. Calling what was happening genocide would mean the U.N. would be compelled to act at a time when foreigners were leaving the country and the U.N. peace-keepers were even being scaled back.
Des Forges took her appeals to the U.S. State Department, where the Africa desk officials agreed with her, but those higher up were not listening. She worked her way up to Tony Lake, President Clinton’s National Security Advisor, where it was clear that the policy was being shaped. Lake would not support calling the slaughter genocide and condemn it as such, which would have changed the entire complexion of how the crisis was being interpreted. Des Forges pleaded for safe zones to be created to which refugees could flee, for Radio RTLM to be jammed, and for governments like the U.S., France and Belgium to condemn the genocide and say no aid would be given to the government carrying out such actions, but her appeal fell on deaf ears.
When the Tutsi rebel forces seized control of Kigali and the rest of Rwanda, the genocide stopped. But killing continued. The Tutsi forces had killed over twenty thousand civilians. The Hutu extremists fled to Zaire pursued by the now Tutsi Rwandan army, sparking the war in Zaire/Congo that became the worst conflagration since World War II. Amid all the horror, Des Forges held consistent standards for human rights. She differentiated between “war crimes,” which all sides committed, and “genocide,” which one side committed. But her unwillingness to gloss over Tutsi crimes eventually got her banned from Rwanda.
Following the genocide and the minimal response from the international community, Des Forges undertook a massive 4-year study of what had happened. She and her team of researchers interviewed survivors and killers. She wrote the 800-page chilling and meticulously documented report that was titled from a killer’s cry, Leave None to Tell the Story. Des Forges knew that telling the stories of the victims was important for truth and justice to have any hope in the region or in the international community which had simply stood by while the genocide took place. For the sake to truth, Des Forges was careful to not embellish the facts. She estimated that about a half a million people died in the genocide, less than some reports of 800,000 or a million. For her the credibility of human rights advocacy lay in the accuracy of what was said.
As the story of the Rwandan genocide moved into trials, Des Forges became a frequent witness against the perpetrators. She testified at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Tanzania. She also testified at trials held in Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada. She served on various panels investigating the genocide for the United Nations, the African Union and various national legislatures.
Alison Des Forges’ voice as the story-teller of the genocide in Rwanda will stand as a challenge to the international community for years to come. She died with 50 other passengers and crew when an airline flight crashed near Buffalo in February 2009.